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Tennessee Utility Uses Quantum Tech for Cybersecurity

Chattanooga’s EPB utility service is pioneering a new method of cybersecurity using fiber-optic technology. The new Cybersecurity for Energy Delivery Systems utilizes quantum technology to encrypt messages.

(TNS) — The Chattanooga utility that started the first Gig Internet service in the Western Hemisphere using its fiber-optic network is now using that same fiber backbone to pioneer a new method of cybersecurity that could literally be a quantum leap ahead of any other utility in North America.

EPB (formerly the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga) on Thursday hosted top researchers in quantum physics from both the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in a test of a new type of cybersecurity control network regarded as far safer and less vulnerable to cyberattacks than any existing controls. The new CEDS (Cybersecurity for Energy Delivery Systems) system uses quantum technology to encrypt messages sent along EPB's smart grid and was tested along a 21-kilometer route on Thursday.

"This is probably the most advanced quantum network in the country, especially considering that this is in a real utility environment," said Nicholas Peters, group leader for the Quantum Science Research Group at ORNL who first came to EPB four years ago as part of EPB's Engineer Scholars program. "If something is secure without regard to computing (like with quantum technology) you don't have to worry about advances in computer power breaking your algorithm and compromising security."

Cybersecurity is a top priority of the U.S. Department of Energy, which is funding the research to help guard against hackers threatening to mess with America's power grid. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Energy created the Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security and Emergency Response with a $28 million annual budget to research technologies that help prevent, detect and mitigate cyberattacks, with an emphasis on communication and cloud-based operations.

At the Tennessee Valley Authority, a team of 60 cybersecurity experts in downtown Chattanooga monitor more than 1 billion potential cyberthreats every day.

The power grid uses encrypted messages to dispatch and control the flow of electricity, but more sophisticated computers and hackers are increasingly able to break the mathematical codes behind such encryption, DOE officials said. The quantum technology uses the laws of physics to encode messages in ways that can immediately detect any hack.

On Thursday, researchers brought to EPB's distribution facility a variety of lasers, electronics and detectors to direct infrared light down some of EPB's unused optical fiber to show how three different quantum encryption systems could be used on an electric grid infrastructure. During the test, the researchers sent and received a series of numbers known as a key using the quantum key distribution, or QKD, protocol, which virtually guarantees that nobody can tamper or alter the messages.

The sender beams single infrared photons oriented in different directions—polarizations—and a receiver measures those orientations. In quantum mechanics, if you measure a photon's polarization, you instantly alter it from one state to another and any hack attempt is immediately known.

"We're sending single photons, or particles of light, on which we encode quantum information," said Dr. Raymond Newell, a scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. "By measuring and extracting that information, we're able to generate secure data, like passwords for the system. They are not based upon mathematical complexity like most encryptions, but rather the underlying laws of physics."

The ORNL researchers were attracted to EPB both because of its citywide fiber-optic network and the utility's willingness to share in research efforts, including its Engineers Scholars program.

"It's amazing that EPB lets us come here and disrupt their lives doing these demonstration projects," Peters said.

Steve Morrison, director information security for EPB, said the city-owned utility has been working with DOE on quantum security for more than three years as part of its research efforts to be a leader in the industry.

"We have a real field test bed for these new technologies because of our smart grid," Morrison said. "We've learned a lot from these tests nd we continue to refine these technologies in ways that will help us have a safer, more reliable grid and really continue to position Chattanooga to be a leader."

The quantum approach still has technical problems on a real grid operating with transformers, switches and thousands of miles of wires. Photons can now only be sent about 100 miles or so on fiber-optic cable before their quantum properties change, so long-distance transmission connections still face some challenges.

But Duncan Earl, a former ORNL researcher who is now president and chief technical officer for Qubitekk in San Diego, which built much of the equipment tested Thursday, said quantum technology ultimately offers the opportunity for far safer and faster computing and encryption.

"We were able to secure better funding is San Diego, but it is nice to bring this technology back home and EPB is an incredible, progressive utility to work with on these projects," Earl said. "I can't even imagine working with any other utility."

©2020 the Chattanooga Times/Free Press (Chattanooga, Tenn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.